Three poems by Susan Rich

What We Were Taught / What We Have Lost

One of us will never suffer, you promised
as if words were as simple as offering a car ride
for pistachio ice cream on Sunday afternoon.
As easy as turning on the evening news
to hear the fractured screams of a father—
his child killed by mortar fire.
You promised I would be loved in the way
only a father can say, like a spell uttered three times
in the garden with trellises of jasmine flower.
Dad, today I need miracle ice cream
for the boys on the beach in Gaza,
a soccer ball between them.
Their lifeless bodies haunt me
and more, the young faces of their friends.
You promised I would never suffer, father,
but imagine the families checking websites
for their loved ones, for the innocent dead, targeted
by the country we were taught to believe in.
Sometimes I still look for my friends Amjad and Samir,
boys who drove me to Gaza’s shoreline decades ago,
dreaming of five star hotels, an airport.
Father, the day you were diagnosed in Boston, I dressed slowly
and then climbed back into bed, a green blanket
over my head as the bus exhaust rose up,
as the restaurant workers next door
picked stones from grains of rice,
speaking in a language as foreign to me as the future.
Now death arrives each night over Twitter—
the bluebird of death you might say.
And I think of your promise. Your face.

~for Ahed Atef Bakr, Ishmail Mohamed Bakr, Mohamed Ramez Bakr, Zakaria Ahed Bakr and Abraham Rich

In Other Words Bookstore, I Imagine

the lives of the Women of the Word
and What We Leave Behind.

Secondhand volumes lined-up together

debate late into night’s Mourning Hour.
On a side table, My Hope for Peace,

signed by Jehan Sadat and the Middle East

enters this quickly fading bookshop
accompanied by a phantom Lemon Tree.

Out-of-print mothers and daughters join in

as I turn the aisle, learn Drops of the Story
glimpse Naomi’s, Words Under the Words.

Some texts are made for each other—

Travelling Rooms and After the Last Sky.
There’s a developing interest in Water Logic

and the bestseller, What We Have Lost.

If I were to walk again through my life,
Down Roads That Do Not Depart

keep Half of a Yellow Sun in my shirtsleeves,

would My Happiness Bear No Relation to Happiness?
I lift Tomorrow’s Tomorrow from the upper shelf:

Dear Memory Board, Dear Everyone’s Pretty

and Nine Parts Desire, dear Musical Elaborations—
Open the Cloud Box. Taste the Olives,

Lemons and Zaa’tar; The Space Between Footsteps.

Redress The Butterfly’s Burden, the Unreal and the Real—
The Question of Palestine.


Checkpoint

Gaza City, Gaza

I arrive via optimism, in the aftermath of Oslo,
into a roomful of bright teachers,

Welcome to my class on human rights theater,

for Palestinians who have known only its absence.
There are concerns, and then, much excitement,

over the abolishment of classroom rows.

No more first or last students; an equal footing.
On our last day together, a few students ask for my passport—

the men look terribly serious with long rifles
slung over their shoulders. In reality—

these are water guns borrowed from a teacher’s son.

Our play is called, Checkpoint, they tell me.
Each day we live this way.

Suffer the Little Children

By Marguerite Bouvard

It took me too many days to muster the courage
to pick up the newspaper with the front-page photo
of Abu Anas Ishara’s three-year-old daughter
half naked, her sweet face held in a scream
of extreme pain and confusion
from yet another chemical shell
that landed on her house
enveloping her parents and her newly born
sister in dust and foul smelling
smoke. Her scream remains
without answer, with no arms
to hold her, no medical care in Marea. Her skin
carries the map of a country that pundits
discuss from afar and disagree
among themselves according to their
own needs. But her scream will not
go away. Her pain will travel
like the clouds sweeping across
the sky and when it finds the open
chambers of a heart, it will be bathed
in tears, it will be answered by
a mother’s loving voice.

Marea is an agricultural village in Syria

Interview with Philip Metres

Poems of exile and war, and poems in translation

Interview with award-winning American poet, translator, scholar, and activist Philip Metres

By Rewa Zeinati

Rewa Zeinati: What does it mean to be an Arab American writer/poet? Or would it be more accurate to be ‘labeled’, simply, a writer/poet?

Philip Metres: Ever since I was young, I was marked as Lebanese or Arab because of my looks, and because everyone in my father’s family or in our Arab Christian Church immediately welcomed me as one of their own. I’ve been told, ever since I was young, that some of my ancestors came from Bsharri, the same village as Kahlil Gibran, and that he visited them in Brooklyn. (We have the letter to prove it! The family also believes that he wrote The Prophet while staying with them at 290 Hicks Street, but I have seen no actual evidence of that beyond a mythic wish.) But what it means for me to be Arab American continues to evolve. It’s never meant just one static thing. Often that’s what happens to immigrants—the Old Country becomes an ossified image of a lost home, even when that home is constantly changing in their absence. For me, being Arab American means I don’t forget that my people come from the Middle East, and that I carry their memories inside my memories, both remembered in the mind and carried in the bone. That I keep in touch with what is happening there, and that I constantly remind people that humanity has no national border. I’m always pleased when I hear Arab or Muslim names in the American public sphere—as artists, journalists, academics, writers, etc. It makes me feel like the United States is changing.

I’ve always felt a kinship with people of color, and particularly with recent arrivals to the U.S. Our experiences are all different, but I feel the Old Countries in the way they hold themselves, the way they move in the world. Being Arab American for me also means that I’m part of a great migration, that my ancestors were intrepid travelers. People, in the end, are not just a nationality. Nations are a temporary political fiction—albeit a highly-militarized and deeply ideological one. So many of us come from many directions, like the four winds. According to my genetic test, some Italian appears to be swimming in my Middle Eastern genes. I wonder who this Italian was. And also, there is some North African in me, some Maghrebi. And some sub-Saharan African. And I haven’t even mentioned my mother’s Irish and German roots. So I am a person of many migrations and journeys, all these ancestors traveling toward and within my breathing, my heart beating, my voice speaking, my hands writing.

RZ: Tell us a little about your experience translating Russian poetry into English. How did it all begin? How did (does) it influence your own writing?

PM: I’m still trying to answer this question for myself. The Russians would call it my fate. This past fall, I spent my sabbatical writing a 90,000 word memoir recalling the year I spent living in Russia during the period of economic transition (1992-1993), trying to retrace my steps into that decision. I’d gotten a Watson fellowship for a year-long independent study project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change,” which enabled me to live in Russia, translate Russian poetry, and meet and interview contemporary Russian poets.

One secret reason I went to Russia was that poets were powerful there, that poetry mattered to people there. To say poetry mattered to me is to understate the case by half. Reading and writing poetry had altered my life, had become my life, my secret life, the one that was mine that no one could see. Reading Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” simply confirmed what I already knew—that we were broken, and that headless sculptures admonished us to change our lives. Poetry had given me a way to clarify and transform my inner chaos, and the turbulence around me, into something almost beautiful. It mattered so much to me, and so little in this country, I’d wondered if I’d been born in the wrong nation. I’d been learning how the Tsar acted as Alexander Pushkin’s personal censor, after Pushkin got involved with the Decembrists; how Stalin sent Osip Mandelstam to his death in Siberia for writing a poem that made fun of him, and how Osip’s wife Nadezhda committed his entire oeuvre to memory, to ensure that his words would not be forgotten; how Anna Akhmatova’s heroic witness in poetry outlasted even Stalin; and how Russian poets in the Sixties—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, and Bella Akhmadulina—declaimed their poems to stadium crowds; how Joseph Brodsky was subject to a “show trial” because he was a real poet and the State could not stand that fact. Poets in Russia seemed to be prophets and rock stars, revolutionaries and dissidents. I wanted to find out why. The truth was more complex than I could have imagined.

But it’s true that translating and meeting those poets completely transformed my idea of poetry and its relationship to the political sphere—I became less interested in poetry as a political weapon and more interested in its alternate way of being, both part of but also beyond politics, or rather, beneath all politics. The primal ground of being. Translating poets like Gandlevsky and Rubinstein and Tarkovsky became an education in poetry’s possibilities. I know the poets I’ve translated better than any other poets because I’ve lived inside those sonic language architectures longer than in any other poem.

My new book, Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album, was occasioned by my return to Russia ten years after I’d lived there. I was flooded by memories as I walked around St. Petersburg, and I needed a way to write about returning to a place where I lived but never felt quite at home. There’s something in me drawn to that feeling of being unhoused, exiled, wayfaring, lost. I can’t explain it.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once that you hope that your 2015 poetry collection, Sand Opera, “can help be the start to a new conversation about the state of poetry, American life, and the role of Arab American literature in our ongoing cultural and political debate about U.S. foreign and domestic policy regarding the Arab world.” Tell us a little more about that.

PM: The difficulty with poetry is that poetry readers typically resist politically-challenging work, and people interested in politics tend not to read poetry. (In a particularly dark moment, I lamented to a friend that I wrote a book of poems too political for poets and too poetic for political activists.) At the same time, every couple weeks, I get another email from someone who’s just read Sand Opera and wanted to thank me. So I’m very grateful for the fact that it exists.

One thing I’m doing now is I’ve begun a Lenten observance. Every day I’ve been posting a poem from Sand Opera at www.behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com alongside Scriptural readings and dialogue pieces by other poets, writers, artists, and activists. This dialogic, choral project has been a way for me to return to poems that I’ve always felt were only partly mine. Since so many of the poems were themselves documentary in nature, composed of found language, the voices of so many touched by war, it’s almost as if the poems wrote me as much as I wrote the poems. One of the gifts of the Lenten observance has been that it occasioned my getting in touch with some Iraqi friends that I hadn’t spoken to in years, to ask for their contribution. And they have graciously agreed to participate.

But it hasn’t been without poignancy. One Iraqi scholar who has worked in the States for many years asked me about the project, and I mentioned some other Iraqi writers and artists who were participating, as a way to entice his participation. He said, well, that’s good, but Iraqis and Arabs already know the situation. I assured him that there would be a number of Americans who also would be part of it. But to hear him say that, his voice cracking with the weight of sorrow he’s carried for so many years, was heartbreaking. I heard in his voice the weight of a weary exile, unable to lay down his burden. Still trying to convince Americans of the humanity of his people, of himself.

Though I’ve felt self-conscious asking other writers to dialogue with my work, I’m touched by the robust response—as if people were almost waiting to be asked, wanting to add their voice.

RZ: “Art should remain subservient to politics.” What are your thoughts about this statement?

PM: It’s preposterous, but only slightly more preposterous than the American version of this statement, that art must remain free of all politics. Art is not art if it is subservient. Yet clearly art for its own sake is also a dead end.

RZ: In your opinion, what makes a good poem?

PM: Difficult question, because there’s no arguing taste. But for me, if you cornered me, I’d say that it’s a poem that retains some obdurate mystery, something unexplainable that makes me want to return to it, and is never quite exhausted by my re-reading.

RZ: Is one born a political poet? Or is all poetry political? (Or should it be?)

PM: I found it funny and sad that a fellow poet told me that he felt as if he should write more political poetry; as if it were somehow an obligation, a necessary evil to be part of the family of poets. That’s the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, for whom politics is something is necessary but dirties one’s hands. That distance is also a fiction of privilege.

A truly memorable political poem is alive because its politics so inhere in the fabric of the poem that it is inseparable from the fact of its being a poem. It’s damned hard to write real poetry of any sort, and doubly hard when it attempts to be political. There is a well-known Arab American poet who writes passionate verse for a righteous cause, and when his book came out, I hoped that it would be brilliant. Although I agreed with him politically, I found only one line in his entire book that I felt was truly alive. One line.

RZ: Is there room for poetry and art in a region that burns with absolute turmoil; where fundamentalism, religious figures and politicians have taken over home and street (i.e. the Arab region)?

PM: Of course there is room for poetry. Now more than ever.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

PM: They are the ongoing conversation that writers and writing are having with each other. Reading them is to sit at the table of that conversation.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers/poets?

PM: The same boring thing everyone else says, probably. Read contemporary poetry and writing, but also the classics (that which is ancient is most new). Read more than you think you need to, because one isn’t original without knowing what has been done before. Don’t be afraid to “cover” (or imitate or argue with) other poems and poets. Write every day if you can. Write as if your ancestors were listening. Write as if the unborn are leaning in to learn the future. Write only because you must, and then write with the joy of this impossible gift of sentience.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

Every day, I’m doing this Lenten observance, which has returned me to scripture, to Sand Opera, and to the work of friends. But in terms of book projects, I’ve got a few that are simmering, that I hope will come to something: “The Flaming Hair of Fate” (the Russia memoir), “Shrapnel Maps” (poems on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), a book of translations, and a book of interviews with Russian poets.

Three poems by Frank Dullaghan

A Liberation

“This shell, it turned out, landed smack in the middle of the Jabaliya cemetery”
Josh Glancy reporting on Gaza in The Sunday Times, (UK) 27.07.14

I don’t suppose it was any trouble
to them, leaping into the air like that,
smithereened, baring their bits
to the blasted air. Of course, they came

crashing back to earth, scattered, mixed-
up, not knowing who was who.
But for that while, they were high.
It must have felt like the End of Days,

the Assentation, come upon them,
dancing together, all tooth and grin,
their bones blown towards heaven,
the first to be liberated from Gaza.

But just as quickly as they were lifted,
they were let down – isn’t that
how it always is? – their internment
heaped upon them again.


The Children Are Silent

The children have learned to be silent.
They look through you,
their eyes older than their faces.
They carry their small bodies like suitcases
that they can pick up or put down.

They think their mothers are great engines
that can go on and on,
mile after mile, as if each day
is just another road, as if insanity
can be out-walked.

Their fathers follow like blown sand,
collars flapped up against history,
their cupped hands reddening
as they pull the small hope
of cigarette smoke into their lungs.

The children may never speak again.
They have gone beyond words,
grown beyond hope. They know that
all the leaders just sit at the same dark tables
and look at each other.

Hamdan Street

You will find him in one of the small alleys
behind Hamdan Street, a narrow shop,
the pavement broken outside.
Inside it is bare, a blank counter, a door
into the back. His day starts at 6am.
There is nothing electric
about his iron. It is traditional,
heavy, charcoal filled. Another man
wouldn’t last an hour. But he drives it
all day, nosing it down the pleat
of a dishdash, smoothing the wrinkled age
out of a sheet. He lives in the heat
and the steam. At 8pm he stops, eats
rice and vegetables, sometimes goat.
He sleeps under the counter. He is proud.
He is the Iron Man of Abu Dhabi.

Attrition

By Helen Wing

                                   ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant

Peace comes

when everything else

is

destroyed,

when we have killed

the colours

and we stand

swaying

in a symphony

of greys.

 

When we walk

our steps are soft

like biting into pears,

feet crunching

through beaches

of ash

and

bone.

 

Peace comes

when

there is

quite simply

no

other

option,

when

there is

nothing

left

to burn

and we

can

no longer

live

here

anyway.

ARE YOU SAFE? (or the occupation of love)

By Shebana Coelho

 

ACT I

 

SCENE 1

 

A pitch dark stage – as dark as you can make it –

slowly lightens into shadows. A dim blue

searchlight roves across the stage, and into the

audience, and in the arc of its turning, it

illuminates a table and two chairs. In one chair,

facing the audience is a GIRL, fair-skinned, in

her twenties with long black hair. Her hands are

clasped behind her back, as if they are tied

together. But they are not. Her head is lowered,

as if she is sleeping. But she is not. One side of

her face looks discolored, as if she’s wearing a

face mask, the kind you get in beauty salons. A

MAN, in his fifties, sits in the chair to her

left. When the spotlight reaches her again, her

head swings up and she opens her eyes.

 

GIRL

Later, he tells me he knew my name all along.

 

MAN

Your middle name, to be exact.

 

GIRL

All it takes is a Muslim in the middle.

 

MAN

Naseema, to be exact.

 

GIRL

Naseema.

She slowly, sinuously leans towards the man and

blows. He blanches, startled. She keeps blowing

and slowly, with her breath, forces him to rise

and he rises and steps back, and further back till

her breath has forced him off stage.

 

GIRL

Naseema. Wind.

 

She turns to the audience.

 

GIRL

But earlier, first – the skin of my father gets me in.

If they saw the brown inside, the brown of my mother,

I’d be at the detention cell, at the airport with

everyone else who had brushed against brown in their

past or in their family or on the plane and the scent

lingers, did you know? That’s what the guards say. “We

know how to smell you.” They’re trained to

smell…roses. They’re trained to smell…attar. I hear

them whispering as if no one hears. But everyone hears.

Those smells carry.

 

The SOUND of low bells, the kind cattle wear

around their neck and a shepherd, NIDAL, about

sixteen, enters from the opposite side of the

stage. He wears a keffiyeh, a black and white

chequered scarf around his neck. He’s in a

reverie, as if following his cattle and not

noticing her at first.

NIDAL

I carry a new lamb. The sheep follow. We go to what is

left of grass. They eat what isn’t burnt. They eat what

is left of green. I swallow the sand. I love a girl who

I saw on a bus that went by very slowly so the people

inside, behind the glass, could take pictures. I stood

up straight when it passed. The minute you see anyone

shooting…a picture, you want to stand up straight. It

could be on the news. You have to think ahead. But that

girl, she put the camera down when she saw me, and the

sun hit her instead. It hit her through the glass as

she looked at me and then I saw her hair…

 

Now he notices the girl and they meet in the

center of the stage. Tenderly, he touches the

girl’s hair.

 

NIDAL

…hair like yours…

 

GIRL

…like how..?

 

NIDAL

like this, soft and clean from a place that has water,

a place where you just ask for it and….

 

He takes a step back and a stream of water falls

on him, drenching him. Like a waterfall, it falls

as he stands there, arms akimbo and then he cups

the water in his hand. The girl reaches forward

and puts her hand in the falling water, cups the

water in her hands as well. The water fall stops.

In unison, they drink from their hands. The Girl

looks up at Nidal.

 

GIRL

In the desert where I used to live, where I used to

love, the land is flat and the sky is so big you can

see for days ahead. You can see the weather forming.

You can see a storm coming. You can say (she points

into the audience) it is raining there, just in that

spot, and not there, in that other spot – like that.

Nidal shakes the water off him. He unloosens his

scarf, squeezes the water from it, and then sits

down slowly on his haunches, as if looking at a

horizon only he can see.

 

NIDAL

Here, we watch the bombs falling. You can see, (he

points into the audience ) there is someone dying, and

there is someone not dying, not yet. You can see this

bombed from clear across the ocean. You can see the

planes. You can see the righteousness with which the

bombs fall so we die righteous deaths. (laughs) Can’t

you see us all dying so that the rockets hidden under

us may live?

 

He ties the scarf back around his neck, humming

softly. It’s not a carefree sound – as if he’s

deliberately calming the cattle, while keeping an

eye out, being vigilant. Suddenly he YELLS, ducks

and goes flat on the ground.

 

NIDAL

Get down. Now.

 

The Girl gets down, lying on her belly. Together,

they look at the audience.

 

NIDAL

My father is an old man in a chair in a desert. A man

like thunder. A line of sheep behind him. A gaggle of

hens beside him. We live in a house with sheets of

aluminum for walls and sheets of plastic for roofs.

Bullet casings at our feet.

 

GIRL

The sheep nuzzle the casings. The chicken nuzzle the

feet.

 

NIDAL

We dream of the well we can’t dig. The land we can’t

farm.

GIRL

Not allowed.

 

NIDAL

Mamnou3…it says here right on the dotted line, in

between the dotted lines, see that signature, see the

shadow of that ink…

 

GIRL

The water in the river…

 

NIDAL

…the water is not allowed, mamnou3. The water we

hear, running in pipes past us, the water that goes

there…

 

GIRL

…settlements, swimming pools, dates…

 

NIDAL

…stockpiles, guards, guns.

 

GIRL

But still…

 

NIDAL

We know…

 

They slowly begin to rise so they are sitting on

their knees.

 

GIRL

….that after a village is destroyed…

 

NIDAL

…what is needed is to build something even if it’s

only…

 

GIRL

…this high…

 

NIDAL

…that high…

GIRL

…this tall…

 

NIDAL

…that short…

 

GIRL

…building a wall…

 

NIDAL

…patting a wall into place…

 

GIRL

…by moonlight, only by moonlight…

 

NIDAL

…just so…

 

They slowly rise to their feet

 

NIDAL

…just so something is left standing at dawn. Fajer.

 

He sits cross-legged on the stage.

 

GIRL

At dawn, he was sitting outside…

 

NIDAL

…twenty feet from the mosque waiting for prayers to

start.

 

GIRL

At dawn, they took him. Later, they hit him. They

argued about hitting him more. Hitting him more, they

decided. His small body on its side.

 

NIDAL

How do you burn a body? They didn’t know. Burning my

body, they learned.

GIRL

I dreamed him. Even as they found him, even then, I

dreamed him and it was the dream that brought me here.

I had never up and gone anywhere. I up and came here.

 

BLACKOUT

 

They exit in the dark.

 

 

 

SCENE 2

 

Lights up. The girl returns to the chair and sits.

She places her hands flat on the table, closes her

eyes. Her head falls forward. You can see the mask

clearly now, green, covering one side of her face.

MANJU, an Indian woman, also in her twenties,

enters and sits on the other chair. She takes a

nail file from her pocket, picks up the girl’s

hand and starts buffing her nails. Sounds of

Bollywood SONGS slowly RISE on a radio we can’t

see. Manju hums as she buffs. The Girl slowly

opens her eyes and raises her head. She yawns.

 

MANJU

Welcome back, Madam. Have a good doze, Madam?

 

GIRL

Ms.

 

MANJU

Oh. I thought the mister that you came with made you

madam.

 

GIRL

No.

 

MANJU

Miss, what beautiful nails you have. Bloody beautiful,

if I may say so.

 

The girl laughs, intrigued.

MANJU

So sorry, Madam, I mean Miss. It is a bad word but I

love it.

 

She giggles-she has a distinctive voice.

 

MANJU

Isn’t it good, my “bloody?” I practiced it watching

those Bond movies. Uska nam kya hai? (what’s his name)

 

GIRL

James. His name is James.

 

MANJU

Those only, Miss. I watch those only over and over

again. If you heard me with your eyes closed, you

wouldn’t even know I’m not a native. I mean, Miss,

would you…

 

The Girl already has her eyes closed.

 

GIRL

Go ahead.

 

MANJU

If I bloody well say so, then it bloody well is so.

Those bloody people. No bloody manners. Now open your

bloody eyes and look at me, I said…

 

The girl opens her eyes and smiles.

 

GIRL

You’re bloody perfect.

 

MANJU

(giggling) Thank you, thank you, Miss. The hundreds of

time I have practiced bloody, I can’t even tell you,

can’t even count…

 

GIRL

Try.

MANJU

Twenty times a day, every day for a week – that makes

twenty into five… No, wait… regular week is seven

days, so that is twenty into…

 

A GUNSHOT offstage followed by a recognizably

Palestinian SONG like “Wayn A Ramallah.” The Girl

and Manju listen.

 

MANJU

You want me to change the channel, Miss? I can’t stand

these shouting-bouting movies.

 

GIRL

That’s the news, Manju.

 

MANJU

Same thing, Miss, all doom and gloom, kill this, win

that, shoot this, save that.

 

The Girl is silent.

 

MANJU

Close your eyes, Miz. I’ll take off the mask now.

 

The Girl closes her eyes. Manju takes a cotton pad

from her pocket and scrapes the mask off the

girl’s face, in smooth, lulling strokes. The Girl’s

head drops and she snores for a few seconds, then

starts and opens her eyes.

 

GIRL

(softly) Turn up the volume, Manju.

 

MANJU

What?

 

She stops cleaning the girl’s face.

 

GIRL

I said, go make it louder.

Manju drops the cotton pad on the table, rises and

walks off stage. The SOUNDS of the SONG RISE

LOUDLY. The Girl picks up the cotton and finishes

cleaning her own face, till all traces of the mask

are completely gone. As if looking in the mirror,

she inspects her face. A harsh SPOTLIGHT finds

her, and illuminates her, blinding. She begins

coughing. The MAN enters.

The World

By Marguerite G. Bouvard

Behind my face is another
face that nobody sees.
It carries so many absences:
the fear of a child who has crossed
the border, her father cutting
a barbed wire fence between Syria
and Turkey, Falah, his wife
and their baby daughter changing their
residence for the twelfth
time in Iraq where life turns
on the axis of a roulette, and borders
crop up within other borders, and the cascade
of shouts are not intelligible,
where we have become fugitives
on the streets we once crossed
to buy a loaf of bread or to visit a neighbor,
streets that reflected sunlight
are now filled with wails, its trees
devoid of branches, its doors clanging
in the wind while walls buckle.
This shattered world can only
be pieced back together with
the words brother, sister, friend.

 

PALMYRA

By Marguerite G. Bouvard

the cradle of ancient civilizations
where monuments inspired by
Greco-Romans and Persians
hold up the sky, and time

stands still, when my hands can’t
reach out or encircle the children
who were unable to flee
or to rebuild the walls of bombed out

houses, are unable to light
candles of hope when night and day
are reversed, and a woman who was a wife
and mother lies on the cobbled street

her blood leaving its marks,
while the blind-hearted man
who destroyed so many names
and faces turns away with his rifle

cocked, believes that he is cleansing
Syria in a holy war, cloaked
in ideology, exchanging
a slogan for his soul.

Interview with Frank Dullaghan

BY REWA ZEINATI

LOVE, CHILDHOOD AND THE ARAB SPRING

an interview with Dubai-based, Irish poet, Frank Dullaghan

Rewa Zeinati: You have three poetry collections, two haiku collections, you also co-founded the Essex Poetry Festival and edited Seam Poetry Magazine. You are a poetry judge for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. You’ve written award-winning screenplays and short stage plays, and are a regular book reviewer for the Dubai Eye Talking of Books radio programme. You are an Irish poet, born and raised, who is living and writing and publishing in and from Dubai. How did that happen? Why the Arab world?

Frank Dullaghan: It happened slowly and over a long period of time. I’ve been involved with poetry for decades. One can achieve a lot in that time if one works hard. I also think it’s important to give back to the poetry community for the gift of poetry; to encourage and foster others on their own poetic journey. Hence my involvement with the EAFL and their outreach programmes and the various writing workshops I’ve run.

With regards to why Dubai, my story is much the same as many ex-pats: I came here with my job and have stayed because Dubai offers good work opportunities. However, being here has opened a door into Arab culture and has given me wonderful opportunities to be part of a nascent and fast growing art scene.

RZ:Your latest collection of poetry The Same Roads Back (Cinnamon Press, 2014) is replete with loss,war,rebellion, and memory.You write poems about what is happening in Syria, in Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates.You write poems about your childhood and school years in Ireland, to your wife you write movingly, “what else do we need but the surprise of each other?” You write about your children. You write poems dedicated to Lebanese and Palestinian writer friends. I get the sense that the collection, really, is about ‘family,’ and/or ‘home’ in the literal and figurative sense. Is that true? And what does the title mean?

FD: I think most writers have certain themes or preoccupations which infest all that they write. Certainly family friends, and ‘home’ are important to me. I’m less interested in place than I am in people. What is the human condition? What makes us who we are? Why do we love? Where have we come from? What do we want? How can there be so much love in the world and also so much hate? I think poetry is a way of reaching out to find accommodation with the strange times and places we live in; it’s a way of celebrating the impact others have on our lives, and a way of sharing our understandings. I have made some strong and wonderful friendships since I moved to Dubai. These have been connections which have impacted my life. So I think my latest book also acknowledges and confirms this wonder.

Regarding the title, I think it points to a number of things – the act of continually revisiting our preoccupations; our need to investigate our roots, looking for reasons to who and where we are; the desire to reach some safe or final destination we call ‘home’; the completion of the circle, the path that takes us back to the beginning. I tend to go for titles that have a metaphorical quality, one that somehow feels right for the collection.

RZ: From your poem entitled “Dirty Poem” the lines, “there are children with dead eyes/ in the garden,women gone beyond grief./ There are men growing into wolves,/ picking at their teeth. There are bombs.” These gorgeous, heartbreaking lines pretty much sum up what has been happening in the Arab world of late. Has living in the Arab region shaped or influenced your craft?

FD: I don’t think it is possible to live so close to the countries of the Arab Spring and not deal with this in poetry. And I do find it all so heartbreaking. How can anyone watch the massacre in Gaza and not despair of human goodness? How do we manage to live in a world like this? There is so much pain. We must seek out the small, often personal, moments of peace and love. We must hold tight to our friends. Poetry is one way of surviving.

However, I always tend to come at these big themes from the individual point of view. I’m not trying to be some sort of public poet making grand gestures to a future generation. I think my work is quieter than that. But, hopefully, it is powerful nonetheless.

RZ: Has living in the Arab region influenced your perception of this conflict-driven space? What were your preconceptions about the region, if any, prior to living in Dubai?

FD: I think I was probably less aware when I lived outside of Dubai. Proximity does make a difference and friendships with people impacted makes it personal.But I don’t think my sensibilities have changed.They are just better informed.

RZ: What makes a good poem?

FD: Oh there are so many things – clarity of thought and communication, accessibility whilst maintaining depth (multiple layers of meaning), surprise, freshness, the ability to show emotional complexity etc. Of course, what makes a good poem is also a personal thing. I prefer poems that deal with human relationships rather than abstracts, I’d rather have sharp images over clever wordplay. I like the lyrical, a narrative arc, poems with a message that is delivered cleanly and with impact. I dislike poems that have too many classical references, that show off their learning, that are lazy (tired language, cliché, repetition without craft, shock words without thought), or that try to appear cool, have street cred, etc. but lack any kind of originality or substance.

RZ: Describe your writing ritual (if you have one!).

FD: Because I have always had a day job and one, moreover, that has always demanded a lot of my time, I tend to write in short bursts whenever I have the inclination/opportunity. I always have a notebook with me, so you will often fine me in a mall coffee shop,writing.When I can,I try to do a little writing first thing in the morning.That will generally only last for a few weeks before the world sabotages it. But, surprisingly, it often results in some of my best and most sustained writing.

RZ: What are you working on now?

FD: I seem to be writing memory poems again about my childhood and early adult life. And I’ve just completed a pamphlet length set of poems about a missing girl.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

FD:They are very important.They can be a standard of contemporary excellence. They can introduce you to new voices and fresh approaches. They can act as an affirmation of the quality of ones own work. I believe, one absolutely must have published in literary journals before attempting to launch their own collection. If you want to write well, you need to read, and you need to listen to the choir of new voices as well as the established soloists. Not all journals will suit all people. But there are many quality journals out there, Sukoon being one, and local too, that it is always possible to find some you like.  Support for poetry starts with literary journals and small presses. They are the lifeblood. They are what sustains the art.

RZ: What do you think is the role of literature and art in a region that burns with strife and fragmentation?

FD: To remind us of beauty. To affirm our humanity. To touch the creative, the human, the positive. To provide a counter- narrative to the small-minded dogmas and hatred of political and religious bigotary.

RZ: You were commissioned to provide the final translations of the poems by His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum,Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai. Tell us a little about that.

FD: Yes, that was an unexpected honour at the end of last year. The way it worked was that I was provided with literal translations (I don’t read Arabic) and I worked on those to try and provide a poetic translation that would work for the western ear. The Nabiti poetry written by His Highness is a traditional poetic form from the Gulf couched in the dialect of the Bedouin. In Arabic, it is very complex in its rhythm and rhyming patterns. I did not attempt to reproduce this in the English translations but rather tried to convey the essential message and images of the poems. I was assisted in this by various experts who provided feedback on particular phrases.That said, it is also important to remember that the work includes praise poems for leaders and religious poems which will seem strange to western ears (though, historically, we wrote similar poems). I hope that my efforts captured the essence of the poems. Translation is always only an approximation. However, I believe that the results will be of interest to many and will, hopefully, provide some insight into the poetic works of Sheikh Mohammed. The resultant book Flashes of Verse was published by Explorer Publishing in a beautiful book and can now be purchased locally.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers?

FD: Read, read, read. Read quality and demanding work that challenges your craft. Look for critical feedback not the praise of close friends who believe your work is wonderful. It’s not wonderful. It may be brilliant for the stage you are at in your growth as a writer, but it can always be better. We only grow as writers when we, momentarily, set aside our egos for the sake of improving our craft. There is much to learn. Always. Every day. You never stop. Nor should you.

Newsworthy

By Lena K Tuffaha

I.

before you can see

we’ll need to adjust the lens

we find that natural light can be

unforgiving,

all those lines and jagged edges

glaring,

beads of sweat shimmering on the brow

scarlet of a fresh wound

unfurling across a body

might overwhelm

we’ll need to calibrate

 

before you react

before you assign any labels to what you see

(like injustice)

before you identify any emotions stirring in you

(like anger or shame)

we’ll need to fine-tune

It’s so complicated, this cycle

what appears so obvious

cannot be named

to maximize clarity

find a signature for the moment

we’ll need to select an image

layer the right sounds on top of it

we assemble a collage of now

so you can understand what’s at stake

so you can understand what you think you are seeing

the information that is

being sent from your eyeballs to your brain

is just raw data

and must be processed for you

 

This is called Context.

 

see for example the brown-skinned boy

slender limbs running across the street

a rock in his hand

focus on the rock

if you feel a bit unsettled by the chaos unfolding on his street

the smoke billowing from fires all around him

the tank pouring out armed soldiers

at the vanishing point where he aims

steady yourself with the thought

of the damage that the rock could conceivably do

and here it would be illuminating to note

that we have soldiers too

our boys sent across the globe

and don’t we love our boys?

and don’t we want them to come home safe?

see? A tank isn’t necessarily a bad thing            a semi-automatic

weapon aimed at a child maybe isn’t

what it appears to be

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

as you look at that brown boy with the rock in his hand

 

This is called Nuance.

 

III.

now it gets trickier

you’ll need to remain vigilant

now that rock-throwing boy

wounds still fresh on his face

eyes half open to the sky

re-appears in the foreground swaddled in a flag            piled onto a stretcher

and beneath him a teeming sea of people

swells in what was the street                        they are lifting what’s left of him overhead

let us now turn up the volume for you

let’s pan out            resist the urge to look too long at

any one face

here a wide camera angle will do best

 

what are all these people saying?

 

focus on the totality of the sounds

why aren’t they softer? shouldn’t sorrow

be soft     modest     relatable?

 

focus on the Allahu akbar

who else says that?   what have you learned to feel about those words?

 

This is called Critical Thinking.

 

IV.

if you find yourself distracted

caught by the anguish on the mother’s

face in the crowd

focus instead on her veil

notice how many women in the crowd are veiled

how do you feel about that?

 

let the question fall slowly

between you and the mother

whose son’s limbs have been

collected for burial

if you find your stomach

tightening at the sight of her pain

if you find yourself measuring

the miniscule space her son’s

corpse takes up on the stretcher

if your eyes find others in the crowd

focus

focus again on the sound that floats up

the words you don’t speak

you do not know these people

 

why are they so angry?

 

tune into how their grief is loud

and disarrayed and confusing

and threatens to make you feel bad

stay with these feelings

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

to filter the images you are seeing.

 

This is called Balance.

 

For more poems by Lena K Tuffaha read the full winter 2015 issue